Hong Kong still has what it takes to become research hub, says tech chief

Science and technology investment is needed if the city is to develop economy beyond property, finance and retail, says boss of R&D park

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 September, 2013, 7:30am

Forget Cyberport, the Pok Fu Lam development bankrolled by the government and tycoon Richard Li Tzar-kai.

While that never lived up to the hype that it would be Hong Kong's answer to Silicon Valley, the new head of a research facility believes the city still has what it takes to become a regional research and development hub.

This time, says Allen Ma Kam-sing, a more convincing push into the future is taking place on the other side of the city - at the Science and Technology Parks in Sha Tin.

But the city needs to do more to generate interest in science and technology among the next generation of potential innovators, says Ma, chief executive of the sprawling 22-hectare park.

"About 30 years ago, most university graduates came out of engineering schools," Ma said in his first media interview since he took the job in July. "Today, if you talk to most secondary school pupils planning to get into university, few will tell you they want to get into engineering school or work in science and technology."

Ma said that reversing that trend required greater co-operation between the government, the finance industry and innovators themselves to foster an "ecosystem" for R&D and innovation.

At this stage, the government had a larger role to play than the private sector in making that happen, he said.

"It's about believing it, choosing it and then executing it," he said. "We need less talk and more action. The first step is for the government to have a vision and state what it wants to do. The second is to come up with a mission and then commit resources to it."

He said it was crucial to invest in R&D and innovation if the city was committed to diversifying its economy beyond property, finance and retail.

The government spends just 0.7 per cent of its budget on R&D - an amount Ma believes is too little compared with other places in the region.

"The challenge in being overly dependent on these traditional industries is that it will not help our next generation at all," he said. "Nor will it help us compete against neighbouring countries, a number of which are putting larger amounts of investment into R&D."

Ma said financing was not a concern, as plenty of funding was coming from non-governmental organisations, venture capital firms and government programmes such as the Innovation and Technology Fund.

A bigger problem, he said, was a lack of pioneering confidence. Ma said rising rents and familial pressures were contributing to Hong Kong's entrepreneurial slump, a far cry from the industrious 1970s and '80s, when many of the city's biggest companies were started in workshops - the equivalent of hobbyists tinkering in garages in the West.

"We need to help young people regain their confidence and remind them that entrepreneurship is, and has always been, in our DNA," he said. "We've been ignoring it for a while, but now it's coming back."

Ma said the science complex, the third phase of which is now being built, would be the ideal place for innovators to test ideas and receive training in business management - a key component of any successful venture.

"Sometimes they have an idea, but may lack the business know-how," he said.

That's why the park offers incubation programmes, with furnished working spaces at subsidised rents, wet labs, equipment and, if needed, financial aid.

An 800 sq ft working space at the park's Incu-App Centre comes free of charge for the first year, and at HK$3,000 per month thereafter. Business consultants are on hand to advise "incubates" on how to grow their ventures.

"Our job here is to help people test their ideas and then help them formulate a business plan that they can present to a potential NGO fund or venture capital fund manager," Ma said.

"Through all these support mechanisms and infrastructure, we hope there will be a much higher chance of success."

But the admission requirements were stringent, he said.

Responding to concerns that the science park would end up as "just another Cyberport", Ma is adamant that it has produced positive results.

The numbers prove it. The park, which opened its first and second phases in 2004 and 2007, is now 96 per cent occupied. The 11-year-old Cyberport, by contrast, is only 85 per cent full.

About 9,600 employees work at 430 companies, 68 per cent of which are local. Roughly 1,000,000 sq ft of office space will come on stream when phase three is completed in the next three years. As of July, the estimated annual turnover of the tech tenants was HK$155 billion.

Ma also pointed to tangible achievements, such as the park's role in the development of 3-D integrated circuits, formed by stacking multiple layers of computer chips to increase functionality while reducing space and power consumption.

"Science can help us solve a lot of the city's problems today, such as waste management and air pollution," Ma said. "It's just a matter of putting financial resources, talent and hardware together now to produce results. It's really not rocket science."